Party Politics - Vietnam

On Indochina, as well, domestic political imperatives affected Eisenhower's policymaking. During the intense administration discussions about whether to intervene militarily to help the beleaguered French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Eisenhower told his cabinet that he could not afford to let the Democrats ask who lost Vietnam. But he was not prepared to get involved without broad domestic and international backing. At a news conference Eisenhower invoked the domino theory to try to create support for intervention (probably less because he believed in the theory than because its dramatic imagery could rally support to the cause), and he consulted with Congress and key allied governments. The misgivings of the Senate leadership and the British government convinced the president to reject air strikes to save the French position, but there is no doubt that fear of the "who lost Vietnam" charge continued to weigh on his mind. One reason the administration worked hard to distance itself from the Geneva Accords on Indochina later that year was that it feared it might get a hostile reaction from vocal anticommunists on Capitol Hill.

It was not the first Vietnam decision by an American president in which domestic politics played a role, nor would it be the last. Indeed, a good argument could be made that for all six presidents who dealt with Vietnam from 1950 to 1975—from Truman to Ford—the Indochina conflict mattered in significant measure because of the potential damage it could do to their domestic political positions.

This was especially true of the three men who occupied the White House during the high tide of American involvement—John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon. From the start in 1961, and especially after Kennedy agreed to seek a negotiated settlement in Laos giving the communist Pathet Lao a share of the power, senior U.S. officials feared what would happen to the administration at home if South Vietnam were allowed to fall. Kennedy told his ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith: "There are just so many concessions that one can make to communists in one year and survive politically…. We just can't have another defeat this year in Vietnam." In November 1961, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara advised JFK that the loss of South Vietnam would not merely undermine American credibility elsewhere but would "stimulate bitter domestic controversies in the United States and would be seized upon to divide the country and harass the administration." U.S. assistance to South Vietnam increased steadily in 1962 and 1963, ultimately reaching the amount of $1.5 million per day. Still, success remained elusive. By mid-1963 the president had grown disillusioned about the prospects in the struggle, and he reportedly told several associates of his desire to get out of the conflict. But it could not happen, he added, until after the 1964 election.

Johnson's misgivings did not go quite so deep, but he too, after he succeeded JFK in office in November 1963, ruled out a major policy change before voting day. As McGeorge Bundy would later say, "Neither [Kennedy nor Johnson] wanted to go into the election as the one who either made war or lost Vietnam. If you could put if off you did." Bundy's comment carries great historical importance, and not merely because he was right in his assessment—Johnson, we now know, sought above all else that year to keep Vietnam from complicating his election-year strategy, judging all Vietnam options in terms of what they meant for November. No less important, the comment matters because 1964 proved so crucial in the making of America's war in Vietnam. It was a year of virtually unrelieved decline in the fortunes of the South Vietnamese government, a year in which the Vietcong made huge gains and the Saigon government lost steadily more support. It was a year when America became increasingly isolated on Vietnam among its Western allies, and when influential voices in Congress and the press—and indeed within the administration itself—began voicing deep misgivings about the prospect of a major war. And it was a year when the administration made the basic decisions that led to Americanization early in 1965. Already in the spring of 1964 the administration commenced secret contingency planning for an expansion of the war to North Vietnam, but with the tacit understanding that nothing substantive would happen until after Election Day. In November and December, with LBJ safely elected, the administration moved to adopt a two-phase escalation of the war involving sustained bombing of North Vietnam and the dispatch of U.S. ground troops (subsequently implemented in February–March 1965). The White House strategy of delay through the first ten months of 1964 had not eliminated Johnson's freedom of maneuver, but it had reduced it considerably.

Nixon, it is clear, had his eyes very much on the home front in making Vietnam policy, not merely in the lead-up to the 1972 election but from the start of his administration in 1969. In vowing to get a "peace with honor," he and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger thought as much about voters in Peoria as about leaders in Moscow and Beijing and Hanoi. Top-level conversations captured on the taping system Nixon had installed in the Oval Office early in 1971, for example, make clear just how deeply concerns about Nixon's domestic standing permeated Vietnam policy. In a phone conversation that took place late in the evening of 7 April 1971, shortly after a televised Nixon speech announcing further Vietnam troop withdrawals, Nixon and Kissinger concurred on the matter of the "breathing space" they would get domestically by ending the draft:

KISSINGER: I think, Mr. President, I'm gonna put the military to the torch [on the matter of the draft].

NIXON: Yeah. They're screwing around on this.

KISSINGER: They're screwing around. They're worried that it will make the volunteer army not work. But the hell with that if we can get ourselves breathing space for Vietnam.

NIXON: Listen. Ending the draft gives us breathing space on Vietnam. We'll restore the draft later, but goddamn it, the military, they're a bunch of greedy bastards that want more officers clubs and more men to shine their shoes. The sons of bitches are not interested in this country.

KISSINGER: I mean, ending, going to all-volunteer in Vietnam is what I mean, is what we ought to do.

NIXON: Mmm-hmm.

In the summer of 1972, as a negotiated settlement with Hanoi looked to be within reach, Nixon expressed ambivalence about whether the deal should come before or after the election that November. On 14 August Nixon told aides that Kissinger should be discouraged from expressing too much hopefulness regarding the negotiations, as that could raise expectations and be "harmful politically." On 30 August, Nixon chief of staff H. R. Haldeman recorded in his diary that Nixon did not want the settlement to come too soon. The president, according to Haldeman, "wants to be sure [Army Vice-Chief of Staff Alexander] Haig doesn't let Henry's desire for a settlement prevail; that's the one way we can lose the election. We have to stand firm on Vietnam and not get soft."

Even before he assumed the presidency, Nixon had sought to manipulate foreign policy for personal political advantage. In the final weeks of the 1968 campaign, rumors that Johnson was on the verge of announcing a bombing halt (to hasten a peace settlement and thereby help Democratic presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey), sent the Nixon campaign into a panic. Nixon secretly encouraged the South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu to refuse to participate in any talks with Hanoi before the election, with assurances that if elected he would provide Thieu with more solid support than Humphrey would. It is possible that Thieu's subsequent refusal to take part in the negotiations in Paris, announced just days before Election Day, might have damaged Humphrey's campaign sufficiently to deliver what was a razor-thin victory to Nixon.

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